When you stopped people on the streets of Crawley a year ago and asked them what issue would determine their vote in the upcoming elections, one theme kept coming up.
Dozens of voters in three different locations – unprompted and vehemently – said immigration was the one thing above all others they cared most strongly about.
Back then, they knew what they were going to do about it: vote Ukip for the first time in their lives. And they did so in their droves. The European election result in Crawley saw Ukip top the poll with 32 per cent of the vote, while in council elections held the same day the party averaged around 20 per cent. But much can change in a year – and the extent of that change could help determine whether it is Labour or the Conservatives who get first chance to form a government after 7 May.
Crawley, a new town built in the shadow of Gatwick airport, is one of those seats that Ukip cannot win at this election – but the size of the party’s support means it is almost certain to determine who will. In 2010, the Conservative candidate, Henry Smith, wrestled the seat from Labour with a majority of just under 6,000. It is a seat that Labour needs to win back again.
Much will depend on whether the voters (mainly former Tories) who switched to Ukip last year will return to the fold of the mainstream parties next Thursday.
Speaking to people a year on, it is quite clear that the issue of immigration has not lost its political potency. On a town centre shopping street it is only too easy to find voters who are angry and upset by what they see as an influx of immigrants putting unbearable pressure on services. Jill and Peter Smith are typical. “I just feel you go round Crawley and they’re taking over,” Ms Smith says. “We’re a minority now and I really do object to that. I think it’s got to be controlled – not stopped, controlled. I want the Conservatives to do it – not promise and talk about it but do it.”
Yet people are less certain to vote Ukip than they once were, and the issue of Scotland has also come to the fore.
“I don’t want Nicola Sturgeon to get anywhere near – anywhere near – Downing Street,” says Ms Smith. “If there is anybody I dislike most it is her. She makes my hair stand on end. Political correctness – forget it.”
Another voter, who gives his name as Gary, agrees – but he will be sticking with Ukip. “I think Ukip’s doing the job,” he says. “People say there is no chance of them getting in so really you’re wasting your vote. I don’t think so – if they get more votes they’ll get elected.”
But his wife, who declines to be named, says she will switch to the Conservatives – on the basis of the SNP threat. “What I don’t want is for Scotland to be having a say. They wanted to leave and they didn’t, so now they want to poke us in the eye. Get back the other side of the border.”
Henry Smith, the Tory incumbent, says he has noticed a change in the constituency from last year as well. “I think a lot of voters understand that on 8 May there will either be a Labour MP or a Conservative MP representing Crawley and that is concentrating people’s minds,” he says. While Mr Smith remains the bookies’ favourite to retain the seat, the result is still far from a foregone conclusion. On Thursday, his future will as much be determined by Ukip as Labour.
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